Lost Beagle-2 Mars Lander spotted from Orbit, over a Decade after Landing
In an announcement made on Friday, the UK Space Agency confirmed that the long lost Beagle 2 lander was spotted on the surface of Mars more than ten years after its landing attempt. Nothing was heard from Beagle 2 after separation from ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft and the assumption by the mission team was that the spacecraft encountered problems during re-entry. In the new images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Beagle 2 can be seen in a partially deployed configuration, resting on the surface of Mars, suggesting a different failure mode transpired after the craft landed on the surface.
“The images show the lander in what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with only one, two or at most three of the four solar panels open, and with the main parachute and what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue parachute still attached close by,” ESA said in a press release. “The size, shape, color and separation of the features are consistent with Beagle-2 and its landing components, and lie within the expected landing area at a distance of about 5 km from its center.”
Hosted aboard the Mars Express Spacecraft, Beagle-2 launched on June 2, 2003 atop a Soyuz FG rocket that lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Weighing 69 Kilograms, the lander package hitched a ride to Mars aboard Mars Express.
On December 19, 2003, Beagle 2 was released from Mars Express onto a ballistic trajectory for a six-day coast towards Mars to enter the atmosphere at a speed of over 20,000 Kilometers per hour on December 25. After atmospheric entry, protected by a NORCOAT heat shield, the lander was planned to deploy parachutes and airbags for a soft landing inside Isidis Planitia followed by the deflation of the airbags and the deployment of the top cover of the lander and four petal-like solar panels, also exposing a UHF antenna that was to be used for communications with orbiting spacecraft.
The first opportunity to hear from Beagle 2 came the morning after landing when Mars Odyssey passed overhead, listening for signals from the lander. Nothing was heard and the silence continued as Earth-based radio observatories and Mars Express joined the search. It was hoped that during a scheduled January 2004 communications pass something could be heard from Beagle if not the next February when the lander would have switched into Auto-Transmit Mode – but no signals were picked up and Beagle-2 was declared lost.
The small lander is equipped with a Payload Adjustable Workbench that facilitates a pair of stereo cameras, a microscopic imaging system, a pair of spectrometers, a drill for the collection of rock samples, and a spot lamp. Rock samples were planned to be analyzed by a mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph to measure the abundance of different atomic isotopes and search for methane. A small ‘mole’ was planned to crawl across the surface in the vicinity of the lander, attached to Beagle with a three-meter cable to be able to collect surface samples. When fully deploying its lid that contained four fold-out solar panels, Beagle would have measured 1.6 by 1.9 meters in size.
After the failure of the mission was declared, ESA and the UK Space Agency began an inquiry into the possible causes, focusing on a number of scenarios that focused on failure modes during entry and descent – ranging from the lander burning up in the atmosphere, the parachute failing to deploy or becoming tangled with the backshell, the airbags not cushioning the impact or tangling up the deployable panels.
A feature in the general Beagle 2 landing area was first spotted in images delivered by the HiRISE instrument of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that can achieve a ground resolution of 25 pixels – only showing the lander as a few bright pixels. After the finding in imagery from February 2013, a follow-up image was acquired in June 2014 with a color image being taken in December. Through image processing, the characteristic flower-like shape of a partially deployed Beagle-2 was revealed with at least two of its panels deployed.
The photos show Beagle 2 in its planned landing area, Isidis Planitia, a four-billion year old impact basin in the equatorial region. This imagery confirms that Beagle 2 successfully made it through entry and landing – becoming Europe’s first craft to make a controlled landing on Mars. MRO imagery also shows the parachute and rear shell with its pilot chute not too far from the lander.
With Beagle 2 found in a partially deployed configuration, the most probable failure scenario centers on the solar panels of the lander. All four panels had to deploy in order for the UHF communications antenna to be exposed – any failure with the deployment would prevent the lander from communicating with orbiting spacecraft, just sitting on the surface, waiting for commands that never arrived, until power eventually ran out.
Beagle 2 was expected to operate on the surface of Mars for 180 Martian Days to investigate the potential signs of life. Although the lander could not fulfill its surface mission, teams are gratified knowing that their lander safely entered the atmosphere and landed as expected – which marks a great success for the £48 million mission.
"I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars," said Mark Sims, Beagle-2 Mission Manager from the University of Leicester, U.K. "Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2. My Christmas Day in 2003 alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2 was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars. To be frank I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars."